ADVISE AND CONSENT
This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Henry Fonda.
I do not think there was ever an age where political fighting was 'the worst ever', at least when actual killing was not involved. Apart from a brief moment in the 1820's known as The Era of Good Feelings, Washington has had nothing but maneuvering and fighting for the ultimate goal of power. Advise and Consent tries to show the wheeling and dealing that goes on in our nation's capital. There is a good story somewhere in there, but it's unfortunate that the film got in its own way.
Advise and Consent really should be considered two films put together. The first half involves the controversial nomination of Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) to be Secretary of State. The majority party's Senate Leader Bob Munson of Michigan (Walter Pidgeon) goes along with the President's (Franchot Tone) choice, even if he isn't keen on it. Aided by the party's whip, Connecticut Senator (Paul Ford), they chug along with this nomination. They also work to outwit the machinations of their minority party foil, fearsome South Carolina Senator Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton).
A subcommittee is formed for the nomination, and a bombshell emerges: lowly clerk Herbert Gelman (Burgess Meredith) claims to have been with Leffingwell at Communist Party meetings while the latter was a university professor. Leffingwell pokes holes in Gelman's testimony but later privately admits that he perjured himself, Gelman having said the truth but the not the whole truth.
Then the film takes another story that barely touches on Leffingwell, who all but disappears. A cabal is forming to push Leffingwell into office, one headed by zealous Wyoming Senator Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard). Van Ackerman sees Leffingwell as an almost God-like figure who will bring peace to mankind, and he will stop at nothing to ensure Leffingwell gets in.
That means putting the squeeze on Utah Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray). Given his name and state, I figure Senator Anderson to be a Mormon, and at the very least he has a young wife Ellen (Inga Swenson) and a young daughter. Senator Anderson, however, also has a deep secret, one involving 'Hawaii' and a certain Ray Shaff.
Over the course of Anderson's growingly hysterical search, we learn through the most subtle of nuances that Brig and Ray had a romantic or at least sexual relationship while they were stationed together. Anderson finds the seedy gay bar Ray is at (and at this point, aren't all gay bars in this era seedy) and eventually the shame and potential for scandal causes Senator Anderson to commit suicide.
Munson is angered that Cooley knew the identity of the third member of the alleged Communist cell and never shared it, which inadvertently forced Van Ackerman's hand to try and blackmail Anderson which in turn led to his suicide. Munson is also angered that Van Ackerman's zeal cost a human life. Cooley coolly agrees not to hold up the vote if Munson releases his votes to vote as they wish.
The role call is given, and some votes he'd counted on flip, forcing the Vice President, Harley Hudson (Lew Ayres) to cast the tie-breaking vote. Fortunately or unfortunately, Hudson had already inklings that the President was dying, and he happened to die during the vote. As a result, Hudson opts not to vote, bringing down the nomination. Now as President, he will make his own choice.
One also could have dumped the subplot of Munson's romance with Dolly Harrison (Gene Tierney), a Washington society doyenne and power dealer in her own right. This is especially true given that as a widower, Munson's relationship would not be anywhere the scandal that Anderson's would. Hudson could have been saved for the end given how little he played in the proceedings too.
I think the film would have benefited from being tighter, cutting out a good amount of fat in its two-hour running time. I think it also would have benefited from better performances.
Laughton's stab at a Southern accent was laughable, his rich British tones simply too hard to ignore. Peter Lawford's randy Rhode Island Senator Lafe Smith did little except be a John F. Kennedy clone. Murray, bless his heart, had to play crazed, and he did it well even if his horror at the sight of the gay bar now looks comical. Grizzard and Pidgeon were the best of the lot as the fanatical Senator and more stoic one respectively.
Fonda acquitted himself well, though once he goes so does the movie. Ayres too had strong moments in his very brief role.
Advise and Consent is also a rare film role and a dramatic one at that for The Betty White as one of the few female Senators in the chamber.
The film seems to want it both ways when it comes to homosexuality. It wants to be progressive in showing this 'decadent' world, yet it also goes out of its way to make such a place so disreputable and sordid.
Advise and Consent is a bit of a bore to sit through, just like the Senate itself. During one of the many speeches I confess to nodding off. There's a film somewhere in this, and given the times we live in now, it might be something to remake (though the homosexuality angle would hardly cause a ripple now).
My advise is not to consent to seeing it.